Bechdel’s ‘Secret to Superhuman Strength’ Wins PW’s 2021 Graphic Novel Critics Poll – Publishers Weekly

Bechdel’s ‘Secret to Superhuman Strength’ Wins PW’s 2021 Graphic Novel Critics Poll – Publishers Weekly

The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Mariner) by Alison Bechdel lands on the top spot of PW’s annual Graphic Novel Critics Poll, garnering seven votes from a panel of 15 critics. A groundbreaking queer author and a true household name in contemporary comics, Bechdel is best known for her widely acclaimed 2006 graphic family memoir Fun Home.

In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, her long-anticipated third memoir, Bechdel celebrates the fads and fanaticism of fitness culture—including her own obsession with physical self-improvement—using the phenomenon as a lens through which to examine both queer and American culture writ large. Bechdel aligns her own drive for fitness with an equally intense craving for a deeper spiritual development, turning her attention to the works of such 18th century essayists as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Dorothy Coleridge, offering the reader a meditation on personal development, mortality, and a contemporary path to a sense of enlightenment.

Bechdel draws her athletic pursuits in trademark clear-line, expressive character drawings, jumping from her childhood obsession with “boys’” sneakers and back-of-the-comic book strong-man ads to an adult fixation on aerobics, feminist-driven martial arts, and the solitary, almost philosophical activities of skiing and cycling—and her love for the athletic apparel and gear associated with them. Woven throughout the book are portraits and deep examinations of writers who also sought enlightenment through exertion of the body, including John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Adrienne Rich, and Jack Kerouac. The book was also named a PW Best Book of 2021.

“Bechdel cleverly hides great truths within light-hearted humor about struggles with her own physical and mental self-improvement,” writes critic John DiBello, adding that “in this age of sheltering in place,” the memoir’s focus on a sense of community and the escape found in fitness, provides readers a sense of “true joy and inspiration.” PW reviews editor Meg Lemke writes: “Bechdel’s impeccable artwork adroitly captures facial expression as easily as the twists of a bike ride mapped across a double-page spread.” Critic Shaenon Garrity adds that Bechdel “turns her ruthlessly intelligent gaze on herself, using physical fitness as an entry point to explore the fundamental challenges of being alive.” And, says critic Rob Kirby, “Her manic commitment to exercise fads is presented with the warmth and humility that make us love Bechdel.”

Notably, this is the 15th year conducting this poll, and Bechdel also won the inaugural critics poll in 2006. A full list of past year’s winners runs at the end of this article.


Coming in at close second place is Run: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell (Abrams), with six votes, which continues the story of the life and political activism of the late John Lewis. Published after Congressman Lewis’ death, but mostly scripted under his supervision, the story picks up during the turbulent 1960s after the events chronicled in Lewis’ bestselling March graphic memoir series, with a new artist, L. Fury, following in the fluid drawing style that Powell introduced in the previous volumes. Lewis’ “landmark memoir continues in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, …….